Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Behind the Cloud

Salesforce.com co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff owns a rightful place at the table of Internet visionaries who delivered. In 1999 he saw that the Internet would allow business software to be offered as a service: Instead of buying, installing, and maintaining complex software, companies would rent access to the same functionality, accessed via Web browsers. Twelve years later, companies are doing more than a billion dollars of that per year with salesforce.com.

Behind the Cloud tells how Benioff and salesforce.com did it. The format is a “playbook” of lessons learned, from Benioff’s take on truisms like “Believe In Yourself” to less familiar nuggets like “Seize Unlikely Opportunities to Stay Relevant.” These “plays” are organized into themes: starting up, marketing, events, and so on. While that may sound like a reference book for entrepreneurs, Benioff and his co-author Carlye Adler combine the parts into an effective whole that works as a start-to-finish read.

Those familiar with Benioff will be unsurprised to hear Behind the Cloud also serves as a sales pitch for salesforce.com’s greatness. Although the book covers mistakes and tough times, those are the exceptions to a long run of achievements.

What sets the book apart from the typical executive victory lap is Benioff’s history as a creative disruptor. He didn’t just play the game well; in many respects, he redefined the game.

For example, along with delivering software differently, salesforce.com sold it differently. Whereas the traditional business-software sales model was to woo the information-technology (IT) department into a single big deal, salesforce.com exploited the fact that it could sell directly to end users, each representing a tiny deal. The end users already had the only software necessary (a Web browser), so IT didn’t need to be involved—that is, until use of salesforce.com had spread virally within the organization. At that point, it was easier for IT to arrange a site license than to fight the tide.

This bottom-up sales model represented a big change, as does software-as-service more broadly. But much of the change has yet to play out. As it does, salesforce.com’s challenge is to be as effective a big dog as it was an underdog. Whatever happens, Behind the Cloud makes a compelling case that salesforce.com has already changed the world of business software.

So if you’re interested in business, especially technology-driven businesses, Behind the Cloud is a worthy read.

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